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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 228 (Sept. 20, 2012)

Military-first Politics of North Korea Facing Some Changes

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Despite its effectiveness, North Korea's military-first or "songun" politics appears to have been undergoing some changes under Kim Jong-un, who took power of the socialist country following his father Kim Jong-il's death last December.

   Under the military-first politics, the late leader Kim Jong-il placed the army over all others in ruling the socialist country for nearly 18 years.

   As the position of the all-mighty military is being shifted to a lesser status, there are signs that the new leader Kim Jong-un has placed more emphasis on the role of the civilian part. This shift indicates that the ruling Workers' Party and the Cabinet are now considered more important than the once-invincible military, which had formerly been the backbone of North Korea's power base.

   As the role of the military is changing, North Korea is stressing the unity between the army and the people. In recent months, the leader has been seen striving to forge conditions for a more open, practical policy line as he has sought to normalize the role of the Cabinet and reduce the inordinate influence of the conservative military rulers.

   The contraction of the military's role appears to be conspicuous since the purge of powerful military figure Ri Yong-ho in July and some personnel changes in the military elite.

   Analysts explain that Ri was fired due to his disproportionate surge in power and his political ineptness to respond to the new dynamics of the power play. He was also reportedly reluctant or unwilling to support the implementation of the new leader's plan to transfer the major economic role from the military to the Cabinet.

   Since taking the reins, the younger Kim has challenged the military's iron grip on the country and begun restructuring the socialist state's economic strategy.

   The Swiss-educated leader has apparently been placing economic specialists in powerful positions, while sacking or demoting some hardliners who spearheaded his late father's military-first policy.

   Kim Jong-un has also divided the role of the government and the party and changed the governance style from his father's micromanagement to a separation of power.

   This is an indication of Kim's intention to transfer power away from the military, which is deemed too rigid and conservative to lead economic projects and reformist efforts.

   Civilian Choe Ryong-hae's rapid rise to key military posts is conspicuous in the recent reshuffle of the North Korean power hierarchy. Choe, now the chief of the General Political Bureau of the (North) Korean People's Army (KPA), had no tangible military experience.

   Yet, North Korea's Kim Jong-un still preserve the songun politics as a legacy of his late father Kim Jong-il. In line with it, the North Korean regime and state media have been increasingly placing emphasis on the idea of "military for the people."

   More recently, the North emphasized that the unity between the army and people in the DPRK (North Korea) is the precious revolutionary legacy bequeathed down by North Korean founder Kim Il-sung and former leader Kim Jong-il.

   Choson Sinbo, a pro-Pyongyang newspaper published in Japan, said in a Sept. 13 article, quoting a speech by Kim Jong-un, that predominant military technology is no longer monopolized by the imperialists and the day has passed when the enemies intimidated North Korea with atomic bombs. "North Korea has now fully secured the status of a strong political and military power that any other country in the world wouldn't dare to threaten."

   Kim's remarks indicate the North will likely spend its state budget on the people rather than the military itself as the country has now become a strong military and political power. The North conducted two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, and is believed to possess a dozen atomic bombs, according to nuclear experts and military experts.

   The North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Sept. 8 that leader Kim Jong-un, while visiting a sports center under construction in Pyongyang, instructed the sports center, which was constructed by the army for other purposes, should be converted to a new facility for public convenience so that masses are able to use it freely for their physical training and treatment.

   Kim Jong-un's order, according to experts in Seoul, is an apparent distinction from Kim Jong-il's era, where ordinary people of the country were advised to respect the thoughts and spirit of the army.

   In the article, the KCNA pointed out the role of the military in the economic sector under Kim Jong-un, who has repeatedly said the people's army should stand at the forefront of the improvement of people's livelihood.

   In another case, Kim Jong-un sent a warning message to the army that the country will not forgive soldiers for pillaging for food from the ordinary people.

   A Seoul official said recently the North ordered the military officers of the General Political Bureau of the KPA to sign a written promise in late August that they would not plunder and annoy the people and would not betray the supreme leader Kim Jong-un.

   Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un mobilized soldiers for flood damage rehabilitation in a county of South Hamgyong Province, and also encouraged the soldiers who contributed to the construction of the Rungra People's Pleasure Ground and Pyongyang Folk Park in Pyongyang.

   Such activities are interpreted as meaning that he will concentrate all the efforts on economic investment, a sign that the leader is trying to consolidate his grip on power by rallying support from the people.

   Nevertheless, it is still too early to judge that the North will continue to place more emphasis on the economy over the military.

   In its revised constitution last April, the North described the country as a nuclear-armed state and it is continuing its construction of nuclear facilities including light water reactors.

   Moreover, Kim Jong-un continuously inspects military units to encourage military personnel. The country also marked the anniversary of Kim Jong-il's start of songun revolutionary leadership.

   Kim Jong-il began his songun revolutionary leadership by providing field guidance to Seoul Ryu Kyong Su 105 Guards Tank Division of the Korean People's Army on Aug. 25, 1960.

   North Korea's main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, in its editorial on Aug. 25, said that Kim Jong-il's historic field guidance was an expression of his unshakable will to advance the Korean revolution along the road of songun paved by President Kim Il-sung.

   The paper said, "The history of the Songun revolution led by Kim Jong-il is being successfully carried forward by the dear respected Kim Jong-un. It is the revolutionary faith of Kim Jong-un that the eternal strategy for the Korean revolution and a final victory are guaranteed when all service personnel and people are advancing straight along the road of independence, Songun and socialism paved by the great Generalissimos Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il."

   In another article, Rodong Sinmun called for stepping up general advance of unity between the army and the people.

   On Sept. 15, the paper said that the might of the great unity between the army and people is being fully displayed in the Komdok area, hit hard by recent flood and typhoon.

   "When the army and people pool their strength, there is nothing to be fearful of or impossible to do. All the fields and units should effectively organize the work of assisting the people's army to make all the families patriotic ones assisting the army," the paper said.

   More recently, the country has initiated a new campaign for patriotism of Kim Jong-il to better serve the people and the country.

   North Korea has said the Kim Jong-il patriotism is based on the juche (self-reliance) ideology and songun politics.

   Patriotism is a new catchphrase for the young leader. On its May 15 article, Rodong Sinmun called upon officials to devotedly serve the people in the spirit of Kim Jong-il patriotism.

   It said that, "It is the wish of the WPK to see all the officials, party members and working people advance under the uplifted banner of Kim Jong-il's patriotism," continuing that the politics of love for the people and benevolent politics of the WPK are enforced in all spheres at a new high phase and officials cannot do their work well as intended by the party without having the spirit of devoted service to the people.

   "They should rack their brain to make a substantial contribution to improving the people's living standard by working in such a way as to make anything more favored by people when approaching anything, planning and undertaking any job and producing even a single item of consumer goods," it emphasized.